A Hot Lp That Refuses to Fade Puts the Punch Back in the Pointer Sisters' Career

updated 05/27/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/27/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The morning wake-up call comes at 2 p.m., an early hour, apparently, for the Pointer Sisters. Ruth, 39, Anita, 37, and June, 31, emerge from their hotel rooms in a wacky combination of baggy sweats, high-top sneakers and argyle socks pulled thigh-high—what you'd imagine pink flamingos to be like in the morning before fixing their feathers. With hair flying in all directions, their eyes shielded by red sunglasses, the sisters encounter a gaggle of autograph seekers while struggling toward their tour bus. "Where are we?" asks Anita. "Fayetteville, Ark.," someone says. "Lord have mercy," laughs Anita, stepping into the idling coach.

If the cities sometimes blur for the Pointers these days, it may be due to their sudden speed of travel. After a dozen years on the side roads of success, the children of minister parents from Oakland, Calif. have finally hit the highway with Break Out, their appropriately titled current LP. The album has generated four hit singles, including Jump (For My Love) and Neutron Dance (from Beverly Hills Cop), and has earned two Grammys and a pair of American Music Awards.

Though the sisters aren't strangers to the Hit Parade—their first big single was Yes We Can Can in 1973—none of their 11 earlier LPs has ever matched Break Out's staying power. Thanks to four high-stepping videos and a brand-new audience of young MTV viewers, the Pointers have been dancing in Top-10 territory for almost 70 weeks now. All of which may explain June's bubbly cry to the crowd from a Jonesboro, Ark. stage one night earlier: "If you want to shake it, feel free!" she shouted to an already rambunctious audience, "because we've got a lot to celebrate!"

Better paydays, for one thing. More than a decade ago the sisters had left their parents' Church of God choir in Oakland, Calif. to try the bright lights of show business. Daddy had grumbled about "the devil's work," at the time ("He wanted us to be legal secretaries, typing along, dating executives."), but the girls quickly landed a record contract and then their first hit. Star billing never quite translated into steady star salaries, however, and though "there were a lot of limousines, a lot of glitter and interviews," says Anita, there was not much income. "About $150 a week," says June. "We were coming home, and there would be nothing to look at. Mattress on the floor, a stereo and TV and that was it."

The Pointer Sisters were a foursome then, accompanied by sister Bonnie. But in 1978 Bonnie bolted the group to start a solo career, and even now the sisters all but refuse to discuss the break. "I thought it was kind of inconsiderate to just up and go after you've made a commitment," says Ruth quietly. Adds Anita: "You learn that people do what they do, regardless of how you feel about it."

Bonnie's recording career has been prolific since her departure, but so have her offstage difficulties. A $6 million suit by Motown's Berry Gordy Jr. charging Bonnie with extortion and threats to his life was dismissed in 1982, but the singer was later sued for a half million by the Los Angeles musicians' union, which claimed she failed to pay wages to contracted musicians. Bonnie's agent, Robb Cooper, cites repeated problems with unpaid hotel bills by the singer and says that she owes him more than $2,500 in money he advanced. Finally, after a 5½-year association, "I paragraph-sixed her," says Cooper, referring to the standard severance clause in many contracts. Bonnie, through her representatives, has declined invitations to discuss or deny the litany of alleged woes.

The loss of their sister was devastating to the group. "There was a big dent in our reputation," says Ruth, "and we had to build a whole new act." For a while nothing worked, and the group began switching musical styles as quickly as hairstyles. Finally their children pegged the problem: "They'd tell us, 'We like you guys, we like the way you dress,' " says Anita, " 'but you better get some songs we can dance to before you play our parties.' " Richard Perry, their producer since 1978, reset the compass with Break Out. "I knew this one was different," says Ruth, "when I was home cooking with the music on and ended up dancing like crazy on the balcony."

Ironically the album's success has kept the Pointers on the road and away from their offspring. True, they have given up the rental car they once used for touring in favor of a luxury bus. But Ruth, now a grandmother and recently married for the fourth time, has left three grown children in Los Angeles, while Anita, long divorced, has an 18-year-old daughter there. "Sometimes I cry about long-distance mothering," says Anita. Ruth nods, "It's difficult. And I blame myself for a lot of mistakes."

There will be more such absences. The Pointers are now on a three-week tour of Europe, and a string of U.S. summer concerts is already scheduled. A new Perry-produced album sits in the can as well, waiting only for Break Out to peter out. ("Masterpiece is a word I'm reluctant to use," says Perry, "but I think it's quite something.") Among the sisters, there is talk of a reunion with Bonnie, although that seems more and more unlikely. After all, no one wants to rock the bus, especially when the ride has finally gotten so smooth.

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